Thursday, 16 June 2016

Being critical of how bodies are ‘sinking’ the NHS: Lessons from the University of Wollongong (Part 2 of 3)

Guest post by Stephanie Morris, PhD Candidate at Durham University

My time at The University of Wollongong has been one of the biggest learning experiences so far on my Overseas Institutional Visit to Australia. My conversations with scholars there have led me to think more critically and question the status quo regarding physical activity, health and obesity. I had many conversations with Professor Jan Wright that made me realise the way in which physical activity is often promoted may have some unintended consequences for the health and wellbeing of those whose behaviours public health initiatives constantly seek to change.

The University of Wollongong
Many academics and practitioners stress the importance of understanding the political economy of health and health inequalities yet it appears that the media and other discourses in our neoliberal society remain focused on stigmatising individual bodies and their behaviours. I came across an article in The Spectator (a conservative magazine) recently entitled, Our NHS will sink under the weight of Britain’s fatties. The title alone got my blood curdling but one paragraph written by Dr Dawn Harper stood out in particular. It went as follows:

If you are a woman with a waist greater than 32in (80cm) or a man with a waist greater than 37in (94cm) you are at risk of type 2 diabetes. If you are a woman with a waist circumference greater than 35in (88cm) or a man with a waist greater than 40in (102cm) then your risk is very high… For your sake and for the sake of our beloved NHS, take this as a warning shot across your bow and get yourself on a healthy living plan.

Now, the first thing I thought about this extract was how fear mongering and morally loaded its tone was. The emphasis is put on the individual for being a bad citizen, immorally and self-indulgently sinking the NHS. Yet, causations and prevalence of obesity and diabetes is much more complex than a waist circumference category. The key question that I wish to raise here stems from the work of two critical scholars, Gard and Wright (2005), whose work is part of the literature critiquing the ‘obesity epidemic’, the link between body size and diseases like diabetes, and health education curriculums. They ask whether the prevalence of such obesity discourses are actually more connected with the morality included in cultural attitudes concerning fatness than about the clear communication of objective and conclusive scientific knowledge. I am not suggesting that there is no reason for some focus on body weight and size, nor am I attempting to condemn all quantitative research in this area. However, I am questioning what implications such a focus on the body might have for people, and future research and policy. First, many have argued that focusing on the individual body distracts us as researchers and citizens from looking at wider structural issues and health inequalities that need to be researched and addressed. Second, others show obesity discourses and 'Healthism' (a term coined by Crawford (1980) to describe a discourse where individuals are held morally responsible for their own health. Individuals then self-monitor and manage their health by objectifying the body.) fuel body dissatisfaction, feelings of guilt and eating disorders, thus negatively impacting on the wellbeing of children and young people.

Positive vibes from a hostel in Sydney
Due to these negative consequences on people's wellbeing I ask what we as scholars, practitioners and third sector workers in the field of public health really consider ‘health’ to be? Do we consider 'health' to be “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (The WHO definition)? Or do we view ‘healthy’ as appearing as an active and slim body? There are movements away from focusing on weight and body size, including Health at Every Size (HAES) – which Peter van der Graaf also writes about in this blog post – that focuses on promoting happiness in eating and an enjoyment of movement in life. Although HAES has been critiqued by many I wonder if some of its elements can be valuable. I do not think continually worrying about one’s body or fat composition is a ‘healthy’ way to grow up or live, as I don’t think it helps achieve “physical, mental and social wellbeing”. Moreover, perhaps if we stop fixating on the body and move away from changing individual behaviours we might consider societal inequalities more and help reduce inequalities that constrain people’s daily lives. What do you think?

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